Infectious pneumonia strikes up to 3 million people per year in the United States alone. 40,000 to 70,000 of those cases are fatal. Sadly, pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death among elderly patients in nursing homes.
Pneumonia in Elderly People
Pneumonia in elderly patients often begins as viral pneumonia, which is less dangerous than bacterial pneumonia. However, a dangerous bacterial pneumonia may infect someone battling a viral strain of the illness.
Pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, swallowing disorders or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) may complicate otherwise minor cases of pneumonia elderly patients may contract. Seniors who smoke are also at higher risk of complications from even the mildest forms of infectious pneumonia.
Residents of long-term care facilities, seniors in assisted-living communities, seniors who are frequently hospitalized and those attending “elder day-care” are particularly susceptible to bacterial pneumonias that are resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics.
Pneumonia Symptoms in Elderly Individuals
For most adults, infectious pneumonia first presents symptoms similar to those of the common cold: sneezing, coughing, and a sore throat. These relatively benign symptoms are soon followed by a high fever, chills, green or yellow sputum, and shortness of breath. Pain on inhalation is sometimes present.
Pneumonia in the elderly may be more difficult to diagnose and treat because pre-existing conditions can mask the onset of infection. In older patients, pneumonia often presents with nonspecific symptoms such as rapid breathing, lethargy, confusion, or dizziness that leads to falls.
In patients with dementia or other cognitive impairments, vague or atypical pneumonia symptoms are common. Because these patients may not be able to express how they feel, illnesses such as pneumonia may be overlooked until they have become severe.
5 Ways to Prevent Pneumonia in Elderly People
- Immunization is vital for preventing deaths from pneumonia. The Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone 65 years of age and older should receive the pneumococcal vaccine, as well as anyone under 65 who is a resident of a nursing home or long-term care facility. The vaccination should be repeated every five years.
The CDC also recommends an annual vaccination against influenza. Influenza does not cause pneumonia, but pneumonia is a common and dangerous complication of the flu among the elderly.
- Normal infectious disease control methods are important. Hand-washing and frequent sanitation of hard surfaces will prevent transmission of pneumonia. Anyone with a cold or other illness should not visit nursing homes or other care facilities.
Staff should be required to wash their hands on entering a patient’s room. Hand sanitizers are helpful, but are not intended to replace washing with soap and water.
- Oral care is important in nursing home patients. Bacteria found in the mouth are often aspirated, leading to pneumonia. Dental health should be maintained, and daily oral care guided by or provided by the staff is important. Studies have shown that even patients with no natural teeth benefit from daily oral care. Using an antibacterial mouthwash daily has also been proven helpful.
- Pneumonia is common in patients who have difficulty swallowing. Saliva and oral bacteria may be inhaled into the lungs, causing aspiration pneumonia or bacterial pneumonia. In these patients, physical and feeding therapy, oral care, and maintaining an upright posture are all shown to decrease the incidence of pneumonia.
- Good general health bolsters resistance to infectious disease at any age. Adequate rest, good nutrition, and appropriate daily exercise are universal requirements for optimum health.
Nursing home residents are particularly vulnerable to pneumonia, but careful prevention and prompt treatment at the first signs of illness will greatly reduce the threat this disease imposes.
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